Published: May 27, 2005

BOSTON – Spurred by President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law, educators across the nation are putting extraordinary effort into improving the achievement of minority students, who lag so sharply that by 12th grade, the average black or Hispanic student can read and do arithmetic only as well as the average eighth-grade white student.

Here in Boston, low-achieving students, most of them blacks and Hispanics, are seeing tutors during lunch hours for help with math. In a Sacramento junior high, low-achieving students are barred from orchestra and chorus to free up time for remedial English and math. And in Minnesota, where American Indian students, on average, score lower than whites on standardized tests, educators rearranged schedules so that Chippewa teenagers who once sewed beads onto native costumes during school now work on grammar and algebra.

"People all over the country are suddenly scrambling around trying to find ways to close this gap," said Ronald Ferguson, a Harvard professor who for more than a decade has been researching school practices that could help improve minority achievement. He said he recently has received many requests for advice. "Superintendents are calling and saying, ‘Can you help us?’ "

No Child Left Behind requires schools to bring all students to grade level over the next decade. The law has aroused a backlash from teachers’ unions and state lawmakers, who call some of its provisions unreasonable, like one that punishes schools where test scores of disabled students remain lower than other students’. But even critics acknowledge that the requirement that schools release scores categorized by students’ race and ethnic group has obliged educators to work harder to narrow the achievement gap.

"I’ve been very critical of N.C.L.B. on other grounds," said Robert L. Linn, a co-director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing. But he called the law’s insistence that test scores be made public by race and ethnic group "one of the things that’s been good."

At least 40 states compiled scores by racial and ethnic groups before President Bush signed the law in January 2002. (In New York, scores broken down by ethnicity were first made public in March 2002.) But even though scores were publicly accessible, many schools felt little pressure to close the gap before the law required that they show annual improvement for each category of student, including blacks, Latinos and American Indians, or face sanctions.

"More folks are talking about the achievement gap than we’ve ever seen before," said G. Gage Kingsbury, a director at the Northwest Evaluation Association, an Oregon group that carries out testing in 1,500 school districts.

Whether all the new activity will have any long-term effect is a matter of debate. Some academics are skeptical that the gap, a measurable condition of American education since the advent of standardized testing at midcentury, will narrow significantly in response to any short-term policy shift.

"There’s nothing right now to suggest that nationally we’ve begun to invest in poor children at the levels that would lead to widespread improvement in math and reading skills of black and Hispanic children," said Freeman A. Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the author of books on raising successful African-American children. Still, he said, lots of educators are trying.

"I’ve been in dozens of states talking to school boards, and in every case one of the critical priorities has been closing the achievement gap," he said.

Social scientists, noting that there is a measurable achievement gap even as children enter kindergarten, argue that its causes may lie not only in school policies but in an array of factors that include family income, parents’ educational attainment and health care.

In a National Public Radio interview last month, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings was asked whether the gap was closing.

"Absolutely," Secretary Spellings said, "every state in the country is showing progress."

John Bryant Commentary — Bravo, and about time! That’s it. Let me know what you think.

Onward, with HOPE

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